Nobody but nobody can sing as well as Luther Vandross

December 16, 1991|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

These days, when a pop star turns up with a massive set, elaborate choreography and all sorts of special effects, it's a good bet all that visual razzle-dazzle is intended to keep the audience from noticing how lame the singing is.

But when the curtains parted at the Baltimore Arena last night, revealing the splashy set and stunningly costumed backing singers Luther Vandross had taken on tour with him, it as obvious that this bit of spectacle was strictly for show. As anyone in the capacity crowd could attest, "lame" is the last word to describe a Vandross concert.

Because nobody, nobody, sings as well as this man does.

It isn't just the quality of his voice -- the effortless grace as it ascends from its resonant, baritone bottom to near-tenor heights, or the supple ease with which he shapes a phrase -- that does it. Nor is it the absolute command he has over the art of soul singing, the sort of bravura performance he gave of "The Rush" or "A House Is Not a Home."

No, what ultimately lifts Vandross above the competition is the way he seems to throw aside the usual barriers between artist and audience, until each listener is convinced that he's singing just for him or her alone.

Take, for instance, last night's rendition of his "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me" medley. That it was a gorgeous example of ballad singing goes without saying, for Vandross' voice is able to caress a melody with the same tenderness a lover would bestow upon his beloved. But as he worked his way through the verses, he began to ad lib lyrics, pulling the lyric closer to his own experience until finally telling the fans, "I'm gonna lay my cards right down on the table" and singing his heart out.

And even though it was obvious that he did this every night -- that his bandleader never missed a cue, and the back-up singers knew precisely where to come in -- he somehow made it feel as if he'd opened his heart just for us. And that, when you get right down to it, is really the mark of a true soul man.

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